In my twenties, I found Woolf too ensconced in her class for her gifts to be fully accessible, though it was clear to me that those gifts were extraordinary – the sensitivity to how consciousness worked and the attunement to how language can evoke its rhythms and intensities. Then at a certain point in my life, there she was! I began to love Woolf’s novels for their depth of understanding and their wonderful language and structure. My writing, in its odd and lesser way, began to resonate with the appreciation of her work, and this was partly due to my undertaking at the age of forty to write the first of my novels; that will do it for one. The novel I began to draft then has finally become my new novella, Acts of Terror and Contrition: A Nuclear Fable.
In any case, here I want to try to suggest the basis of my admiration for Woolf. The novel of hers which I have read and taught most often is Mrs. Dalloway. Particularly in the various versions of my course on modernism, that work powerfully (and usefully) evokes several crucial concerns of the modern period: the nature of the stream of consciousness, the shock of the First World War, and the issue of “moments” of intense experience, of “being.” Woolf’s use of limited omniscience to focus, first, on the stream of Clarissa Dalloway’s consciousness renders the great range of her receptivity to existence – her sensitivity to the presence of death (evoked by the repetition of the Shakespearean song “Fear no more the heat of the sun” or by Big Ben tolling the hour, etc.) as well as her attunement to the flux and flow of life: “In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.” This is not Leopold Bloom’s Joycean free associative stream of consciousness, for Woolf has selected and rhythmically arrayed these phrases and perceptions (and often she uses other distancing controls, locutions like “one would think” employing the conditional and the impersonal pronoun), yet her characterization of Clarissa Dalloway does capture an affirmation akin to Bloom’s – a lyric upwelling of Clarissa’s sense of life as she simultaneously prepares to give her upper-class party and simultaneously resonates with memory, with her alertness to the proximity of death, and with the possibility of vivid, vital life.
“This moment in June” can stand for the primacy of momentaneous experience in this 1925 novel’s vision of modern existence. She has inherited Pater’s pre-modern aesthetic of the vital, hallowed “moment” and ushered it into modernity. Her great tragicomic novel renders the unfolding of intense moments of life and of death, of passion and of loss, as they struggle to endure after the Great War in the face of cultural mourning for death’s massive presence in “one’s” consciousness. Clarissa Dalloway’s “double” in this beautifully double-plotted novel is Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked veteran of the First World War. Septimus’ capacity to respond "normally," "to feel," has been exhausted – burned out of him – by the horror he has witnessed, above all by the death of a friend, Evans, a soldier blown to bits before his eyes. As a result, Smith lacks a protective layer insulating him from the forces and voices around him which would “scrape and rasp his spine.” Nevertheless, he responds to the interconnectedness of life, to the canopy of trees “quickened” to life or to the sounds of birds, which in his painfully distorted case chatter on in Greek. His struggling existence parallels Clarissa’s, often in shared imagery and language: her love of the canopy of trees at her childhood home, her terror at the forces which scrape and rasp her spine, or her incantation – like his – of “Fear no more.”
Septimus Smith is driven to suicide by his obtuse psychiatrists, who in the early 1920s make him feel that he is a freak who must be locked away for his failure to maintain “a sense of proportion.” Woolf’s censure of these doctors may well stem from her own experiences of their treatments, but more deeply, her horror at their inability to understand how to mourn, how to face tragic loss, is a signal feature of her modernist vision; it is conveyed in a quasi-omniscient sequence almost exactly in the middle of the novel: “But Proportion has a sister, less smiling, more formidable, a Goddess even now engaged – in the heat and sands of India, the mud and swamp of Africa, the purlieus of London.” Psychiatry’s occupation of the psyche becomes linked to Imperialism’s conquests. “Conversion is her name, and she feasts on the wills of the weakly, to impress, to impose, adoring her own features stamped on the face of the populace.” Again, in an echo between the double plots, Clarissa responds as follows to the efforts of a Dickensian-named, born-again Miss Kilman to convert her daughter: “Had [Clarissa] ever tried to convert any one herself? Did she not wish everybody merely to be themselves?...[L]ove and religion would destroy that, whatever it was, the privacy of the soul.”
In the climax of the novel, as Clarissa is made to hear about the suicide of the psychiatrist’s patient, she has a series of epiphanies. There is the moment of revelation when Sally Seton arrives at the party; when they were young women, she had given Clarissa the passionate “gift” of a kiss, and here she was now, “older, happier, less lovely,” talking about her “five enormous boys.” Earlier there had been the arrival of Peter Walsh, the man who had been passionate toward her in youth, and there is her realization that he is now, in his mid-fifties, perturbed and injured by life. Most important for Clarissa, though, is her hearing of Septimus throwing himself to his death: “her body went through it first…Up had flashed the rusty spikes. There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackness. So she saw it….He had flung it away. They went on living…they would grow old. A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved. Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate.”
In exploring what death communicates, Woolf is writing from the center of modernist vision. “There was an embrace in death” of all that had been negated by the “sense of proportion,” the “converted” self, and a moribund society. Septimus “made her feel the beauty; he made her feel the fun,” for his death stirred in her 'sympathetic imagination' (which is her "gift") all of the silenced possibilities for meaning obliterated by the spiritual death in Clarissa’s world: “the impossibility of reaching the center” – the “closeness” and “rapture.” Given the enormity of World War deaths, of what seemed the death throes of a civilization, all humans struggled to see how death could be understood beyond the chaos, bitter emptiness, and fear (“Fear no more the heat of the sun / Nor the furious winter’s rages”). Woolf’s novel shows us that the challenge of modernity is to imagine how death can function as a portal through which transfiguring knowledge can speak – how it can function as the sign of an autonomous new sense of being, bridging the torrent of death.
How Woolf imagines these possibilities needs more explanation than I’ve offered here, and in my next post I’ll try further to sketch her vision in the context of her ideas and of her other novels. Here's a link to the novel about Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith: Mrs Dalloway.
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I'm now circulating to publishers. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I sometimes circulate. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962, which is as yet unpublished. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]